above An illustration for La Domenica del Corriere, a newspaper published in Milan, shows Italian planes attacking Republican troops as they attempt to cross the Ebro.

Spanish Civil War: the Battle of the Ebro

Chris Bambery examines how the deadliest engagement of the Spanish Civil War paved the way for Republican defeat.

This is the second part of Chris Bambery's MHM Special on the Spanish Civil War. Read the first part here.

On the evening of 24 July 1938, Spanish Republican troops, joined by foreign volunteers of the International Brigades, found themselves creeping in the dark through mud and reeds towards the banks of the Ebro (Ebre in Catalan), the mighty river that flows through Catalonia in a south-easterly direction towards the Mediterranean.

They were part of an offensive which involved about 80,000 men on the Republican side, and ranged from Xerta, about 50 kilometres inland from the river’s mouth, to Fayón, another 80 kilometres upstream. The attackers achieved complete surprise – a remarkable military achievement.

The 930-kilometre (580-mile) Ebro is the longest river running entirely in Spain. Republican troops on the east bank had spent weeks assembling boats and pontoon bridges and, in many cases, learning to swim. This could not have gone unnoticed by spies working for General Franco, the Nationalist leader, who were passing information to Nationalist troops dug in on the river’s west bank. But their commanders dismissed any possibility of a ‘Red’ attack.

below Shots being fired during the Battle of the Ebro, fought between 25 July and 16 November 1938.
Shots being fired during the Battle of the Ebro, fought between 25 July and 16 November 1938. Photo: © Iberfoto/Bridgeman Images

In fact, the Battle of the Ebro would become the longest and bloodiest battle of Spain’s Civil War, spanning nearly five months. At the time, Franco’s press officer Luis Bolín put Nationalist casualties at 41,414 and Republican ones at 70,000. More recently, historians have offered varying figures, with Hugh Thomas suggesting total losses on both sides of 50,000 to 60,000, and Paul Preston estimating them at 110,000.

‘Like clockwork’

The crossing points over the river had been chosen by Michael Dunbar, the 26-year-old graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, who had recently been appointed chief of staff of the XV International Brigade. (As late as 1942, complaints were raised in the British Parliament that, despite his leading role at the Ebro, Dunbar ranked as a mere sergeant in the British Army – proof to some that veterans of the war in Spain were discriminated against.)

Sam Wild, the commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigades, ordered his men to fly the Catalan flag as they crossed, and among those chosen to carry the flag was a young Irishman and former IRA Volunteer, Michael O’Riordan. On reaching the far side in a boat, he handed the flag to a Catalan soldier. A week later, O’Riordan was seriously wounded in the fierce fighting at Hill 481, overlooking the town of Gandesa, and had to be evacuated. For now, however, things progressed more smoothly.

‘The whole manoeuvre went off like clockwork,’ recalled Harry C Shepard Jr, a member of the US Abraham Lincoln International Brigades. ‘Each man was trained for a particular job. It was an immensely good piece of work on the part of the authorities to coordinate all the movement… altogether about the most brilliant thing the Loyalist army has done in the whole war.

right The aims of the Republican offensive were to win back Catalan territory, to recapture the transport hub of Gandesa, and to divert the attention of Nationalist forces.
The aims of the Republican offensive were to win back Catalan territory, to recapture the transport hub of Gandesa, and to divert the attention of Nationalist forces. Map: Ian Bull

‘Our brigade, the 15th, along with scores of others, marched up to the river in the earliest hours of July 25. We were spread along a huge stretch – from Flix to [Mora d’Ebre, about 20 kilometres away]. I crossed at a little town called Ascó, in one of the first boats. The fascist line on the other side had already been broken however, and the only danger at the time was from their big guns and the avión [aircraft]. That was enough, though, to give us a hot time.’

French units of the International Brigades were given the task of crossing the river further downstream, nearer its delta. They were to act as a diversion, to draw off Nationalist troops from where the main crossing would take place.

A young French-Algerian, René Cazala, led the only group to make it across. They found themselves trapped with a canal in front, the river behind, and Francoists firing on them from above. Cazala and his men shouted back for help, but none could come because of the intensity of enemy fire. At dawn, a few men finally reached the unit’s position, but found that all were dead except for a wounded Cazala, who realising that he was himself dying took out his pistol and shot himself in the head.

Tensions develop

The aims of the Ebro offensive were to win back Catalan territory, to recapture the major Francoist transport hub of Gandesa (a few kilometres west of the river), and to dig in in order to entice Franco’s troops into launching a major counterattack. That would draw off Nationalist forces engaged in attacking towards Valencia, the Republican capital – thereby, the Republicans hoped, extending the war until a wider European conflict might break out between the remaining parliamentary democracies and the fascist powers.

That seemed a real possibility as tension developed, with Britain and France on one side and the Third Reich on the other, over Hitler’s demands that he be handed control of the Sudetenland (the German-speaking area of Czechoslovakia). Back in Spain, Franco was aware that his own forces could not resist any potential French offensive, and as the Czech crisis grew the Germans also stopped arms supplies. Quickly the Nationalists suffered a shortage of ammunition.

Juan Negrín, the Republican Prime Minister, hoped that the Battle of the Ebro would show Britain and France that a balance of forces remained in Spain. The Republican troops had already retreated through the line of Sierras – the system of mountain ranges running parallel to the country’s Mediterranean coast, with the Sierra de Pàndols at their centre, just 15 kilometres from the river – and knew that they would provide an excellent defence line.

‘The men knew there was little chance for a total defeat of the enemy,’ wrote one American volunteer. ‘They thought specifically in terms of seizing territory, entrenching and then holding it.’ Despite that realisation, morale on the Republican side was good.

above An illustration for La Domenica del Corriere, a newspaper published in Milan, shows Italian planes attacking Republican troops as they attempt to cross the Ebro.
An illustration for La Domenica del Corriere, a newspaper published in Milan, shows Italian planes attacking Republican troops as they attempt to cross the Ebro. Image: Alamy

The Republican forces – under the direction of Negrín, Undersecretary for the Army Colonel Antonio Cordón, and chief of staff Colonel Vicente Rojo – had benefited from a brief reopening of the French border, allowing matériel to come in. However, when the centre-left government fell in Paris just weeks later, it closed again.

A new Republican army was formed for the offensive: the Army of the Ebro. It was headed by communist senior officers – led by General Juan Guilloto León, known as ‘Modesto’ – and was composed of three army corps under the experienced and determined officers Enrique Líster, Manuel Tagüeña and Etelvino Vega. Alongside Negrín, these men knew that failure would mean their opponents within the divided Republican government would target them for removal.

Republican advances

On the morning of 25 July, the Hungarian Rakosi Battalion led the XIII International Brigade and 35th Division of the Republican Army across the Ebro near Ascó. Back across the river, a Polish unit listened while they waited. Gunfire on the other side ceased, and a Hungarian officer assured them it was safe to cross: the enemy had fled.

The Poles and Hungarians marched on. By 11am, they had reached La Venta de Camposines, 10 kilometres from the river, where a battalion of Nationalists was sitting around preparing lunch. They were surrounded and captured.

By midday, they had reached the town of Corbera d’Ebre, where they linked up with the British Battalion. They were greeted by shouts in Catalan: Visca Catalunya! Visca la República! (‘Long live Catalonia! Long live the Republic!’).

By mid-afternoon, they were just outside Gandesa, having advanced a total of 25 kilometres. But Gandesa – with its strong garrison – proved to be heavily fortified. Rather than outflank it and continue the advance, the Republicans chose to lay siege – even though all depended on maintaining a rapid advance before Franco’s superior matériel could be deployed.

For his part, Franco requested that German aircraft of the elite Condor Legion attack the pontoon bridges that the Republicans had used to cross the river. In tandem, the Nationalists opened locks and dams on rivers feeding into the Ebro, creating a surging current that swept away many more pontoon bridges.

Republican losses were high, with the near destruction of the 42nd Division, whose troops were in the first wave across. A fortnight later, they returned to their base on the river’s right bank with fewer than half their men.

The Republicans’ nearest base for supplying their forces was the town of Falset, more than 20 kilometres away across the Ebro. This made it difficult to consolidate new positions and push forward. In contrast, Franco’s fleet of trucks – provided by Mussolini and Hitler, and fuelled by the Texaco oil company, with whom the Nationalists were in cahoots – was able to rush reinforcements to Gandesa.

Already the Army of the Ebro included Catalan conscripts as young as 16 and as old as 35. They had just five days training. Fighting across the Ebro meant that often they could not be relieved from the front.

above General Franco at the Battle of the Ebro. Mussolini complained of his ‘flabby conduct of the war’.
General Franco at the Battle of the Ebro. Mussolini complained of his ‘flabby conduct of the war’. Image: Alamy

Still, at first the crossing was a major success, with Republican forces capturing an area of 800 square kilometres, cutting off a large loop of the river as it stretched north-eastwards from Xerta to Fayón, and another smaller bulge northwards to Mequinenza. They had advanced beyond the mountains of the Sierra de Pàndols, which provided the strong defensive position they required. They had not taken Gandesa, but it was half surrounded.

‘Practically no resistance,’ noted Alvah Bessie, an American of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. However, he added, ‘that… will come later when the fascists have gathered their matériel for a counterattack’.

The Republicans attempted to take the heavily defended Hill 481, which they called ‘the Pimple’, a key position overlooking Gandesa. Here, they found themselves attacking into heavy machine-gun fire. One British volunteer, a young Labour councillor from Liverpool by the name of Jack Jones (later to become the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union), was running up the hill when his right arm went numb and blood flowed from his shoulder. Waiting for darkness to fall, he crawled back, and was eventually taken to the field hospital at Mora d’Ebre, which he recalled as ‘like an abattoir; there was blood and the smell of blood everywhere’.

The final attempt by the Republicans to take ‘the Pimple’ came on 3 August. It failed, and the Republicans suffered huge casualties, but their young Catalan conscripts had shown that they could fight.

In the face of Nationalist air and artillery superiority, and with his forces trapped with their backs to the river, Modesto ordered the Republican army on the defensive, its political commissars echoing the slogan, ‘Resist, fortify and be vigilant’. They defended in depth, so they could launch counterattacks to retake lost positions. Their fighting holes were well dug, so they could withstand everything but a direct hit.

Among those who had volunteered to cross the river was Lillian Urmston, a young English nurse from Stalybridge, Greater Manchester, who helped set up a hospital at the Magdalena Hermitage in the Sierra de Cavalls, where the wounded were tended until artillery fire destroyed its walls. Moving into the train tunnels at Flix, Urmston was among those looking after the wounded in the dark, with only oil lamps and cigarette lighters providing light. When shells and bombs fell on the mountain above, she recalled that she shivered. Her biggest fear was that they might fall into the hands of Franco’s Moroccan troops, who would kill the wounded and torture and rape the medical staff.

Once more Franco was diverting troops from other fronts to concentrate on the Ebro, bringing complaints from some of his generals, and from the Germans and Italians, that the Republicans could be contained and isolated while those forces were used to take Valencia, or to advance on a relatively undefended Barcelona. In Rome, Mussolini complained about Franco’s ‘flabby conduct of the war’, telling his Foreign Minister Count Ciano, ‘I prophesy the defeat of Franco. Either the man doesn’t know how to make war or he doesn’t want to.’

But Franco was satisfied. ‘I have the best of the Republican army shut up in an area of 35 kilometres,’ he told his staff. He could draw on the resources of Nationalist Spain – the great majority of the country – bringing in fresh troops from there, as well as from Morocco and Italy, and could also call on fresh arms from Germany, as well as the support of the German and Italian air forces.

above Morris Stamm and John Coon, members of the US Abraham Lincoln International Brigades, fighting for the Republican side near Gandesa, August 1938.
Morris Stamm and John Coon, members of the US Abraham Lincoln International Brigades, fighting for the Republican side near Gandesa, August 1938. Image: Alamy

Firepower prevails

On 1 August, the Nationalists attacked Hill 481. The Republicans had considerable numbers of men, but no air cover (by early August their air force was essentially wiped out) or heavy weapons. In contrast, the Nationalists deployed 200 aircraft from a total of 500 first-class planes (including Italian Savoia SM.79, Savoia SM.81, and Breda Ba.65; German Heinkel He 111, Dornier Do 17, and Junkers Ju 52 and Ju 87; as well as Bf 109 and CR.32 fighters), while 500 cannon fired 13,000 rounds in just a few days. In grinding trench warfare, Nationalist firepower prevailed.

Franco then ordered an offensive aimed at retaking the northern area of the battle front, between Mequinenza and Fayón, which was heavily bombed by the Condor Legion, killing 900 men. The Republicans were forced back to the Ebro, but maintained their hold of the Sierra de Cavalls. In early September, the Nationalists resumed the attack, capturing Corbera. After an initial breakthrough on the Sierra de Cavalls, however, they were beaten back as Republicans rushed in reinforcements.

The Nationalists had held Gandesa, but failed to break through into Catalonia, angering Mussolini. In October, Franco launched a major attack on Hill 666, the key point of the Sierra de Pàndols, south of Gandesa, towering over the valley below. The top of the hill was a lunar-like surface, with only bare rock for cover. The Republicans were determined to hold on to this key look-out, and the Nationalists accordingly kept it under air and artillery bombardment. The Republicans clung on in desperate conditions for as long as they could, as the Nationalists committed themselves to attacking this barren spot, pouring in huge resources of shells, with both sides suffering mounting losses.

On 2 October, the Nationalists took the heights of the nearby Sierra de la Vall de la Torre. At the close of the month, deploying 175 guns and 100 aircraft, they again attacked Hill 666. After a day of fighting, they took the high point, with the Republicans losing 500 dead and 1,000 prisoners.

By 2 November, the Nationalists had control of the Sierra de Pàndols, and the next day they reached the banks of the Ebro. Two weeks later, on 16 November, the last Republicans recrossed the river at Flix, bringing the battle to an end.

After nearly five months, Franco’s forces had finally forced the Republicans back across the Ebro. Ignacio Hernández, a young second lieutenant in the Nationalist Army, perhaps summed it up when he said: ‘What won the war for the Nationalist Army was its superior artillery and bombing capacity. You could almost say the Condor Legion won the war.’ Either way, the road into Catalonia was now clear.

No compromise

One of Negrín’s aims in launching the Ebro offensive was to put on a strong showing on the battlefield to open the door to a negotiated peace with Franco. In May 1938, he had issued his Trece Puntos (‘Thirteen Points’), reducing the Republicans’ peace terms to the absolute independence of Spain, freedom of conscience, protection of regional liberties, universal suffrage, an amnesty for all Spaniards, and agrarian reform.

below Members of the XV International Brigade, possibly including the British Battalion, being bid farewell following the announcement of their withdrawal, October 1938.
Members of the XV International Brigade, possibly including the British Battalion, being bid farewell following the announcement of their withdrawal, October 1938. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Franco dismissed them completely, making it clear that he was determined to cleanse Nationalist Spain of all its enemies. There would be no compromise, no leniency.

But if Franco would not contemplate an armistice, Negrín refused to countenance unconditional surrender. As he said to a friend on 7 August: ‘I will not hand over hundreds of defenceless Spaniards who are fighting heroically for the Republic so that Franco can have the pleasure of shooting them.’

Meanwhile, international events were also determining the hopes of the Republic. Much of the British elite openly supported Franco, fitting with a general acceptance that the main danger was communism not fascism. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain wrote to King George VI that the UK and Nazi Germany were ‘the two pillars of European peace and buttresses against communism’.

Hoping to appease Hitler, the British and French governments signed away the Sudetenland at an international conference held in Munich in September 1938. In Moscow, Stalin now gave up seeking an alliance with Britain and Germany, and began to look to a deal with Hitler himself. That meant ending military aid to the Spanish Republic.

Franco, who prior to the Munich Agreement had been assuring London and Paris that Nationalist Spain would stay neutral in any European conflict, now rushed to congratulate Hitler. For the Republic, Munich meant the collapse of Negrín’s hopes.

End game

On 21 September, Negrín announced the withdrawal of the International Brigades to the League of Nations. His hope was that Hitler and Mussolini might follow suit. That was not to happen.

The British Battalion, however, would be called into action for a final time, replacing the Polish 13 Dombrowski Brigade at Sierra de la Vall de la Torre. Having been subjected to a five-hour artillery barrage, the battalion was caught in murderous rebel crossfire. Remaining in their positions until their trenches were overrun, more than 200 members of the battalion were killed or wounded.

Now the biggest problem facing the Republic was exhaustion. Ordinary people had rallied to its support. But in Catalonia food was short, exacerbated by a swollen population as refugees fled the advancing Nationalists. At the same time, German, Italian, and Francoist bombers targeted Barcelona and other Republican-held towns and cities. People were tired, hungry, and war-weary.

The Germans had already, in May 1938, tested their new Ju 87 dive bomber, the Stuka, by attacking four undefended villages in the interior of Castellón province. Thirty-eight civilians were killed. Franco was not informed of the operation. The same Stukas would be used on Barcelona.

The Republican Army within Catalonia could now draw on few conscripts. There were no fresh supplies of weaponry, and the industries of Barcelona were starved of coal and electricity. The Nationalist advance met little organised resistance.

On 3 January 1939, Francoist and Italian troops began an all-out offensive on Catalonia. By 9 January, they had taken Tarragona and held a third of Catalan territory, taking 23,000 prisoners and killing 5,000 Republican soldiers. The capture of towns and villages was followed by executions of those deemed opponents of Franco. The Catalan language was banned, and Catalan books burnt.

Remaining Republican forces were outnumbered six to one, and the Nationalist air force bombed Barcelona every day (40 times between 21 and 25 January). Hastily devised defence lines could not halt the advance, and it became clear Barcelona could not be defended. The city fell without a fight on 26 January.

A flight was under way towards the French border. By the time the Nationalist Army closed it on 9 February, some 465,000 people had crossed to France. They received little welcome: soldiers were interned in appalling conditions, and when France itself fell to Hitler many ended up in Nazi concentration camps.

Negrín flew back to the Republican zone vowing to fight on, but few had the stomach for that. A military coup followed in early March, led by Colonel Segismundo Casado, who had been in command of Madrid. He hoped to negotiate a peace deal with Franco. Negrín and the communist leaders threw in the towel, and flew into exile.

Finding that Franco simply demanded unconditional surrender, and having no resistance to a Nationalist advance, Casado himself fled on 29 March aboard a British warship. His troops had no such means of escape and were rounded up: some were shot, many others sent to camps to be used as slave labour.

Despite the Republicans’ early success, the Ebro had for them been a defensive engagement throughout. The aims were to wear down the Nationalists, so that they would be forced to negotiate a victory rather than insist on unconditional surrender, and for the Republic to fight on until a European war began. But the battle meant the destruction of key army units, and of Catalonia itself, which led to the final collapse of the Republic. Four decades of Francoist dictatorship lay ahead.